GM Scientific hopes to develop the next generation of radiation-sensing polymers. Founder and Director Dr Maria Dugdale joined Anna Fleming to discuss their applications, the market, and how GM Scientific is hoping to gain a leading position in the manufacture of solid-state nuclear track detectors.
What does GM Scientific do?
There are two sides to the business; client support/training and material supply. We are supplying the current standard material to the market but also doing a lot of R&D to develop a new type of material. We re-sell and manufacture solid-state nuclear track detectors (SSNTDs), which in our case are essentially radiation sensitive polymers often referred to as PADC, CR-39 or Tastrak. It’s a fairly old technology, but it’s still widely used because it’s cheap and it works. This type of polymer is mostly used for detecting alpha and neutron radiation with the biggest uses being radon gas measurements and monitoring at nuclear power stations. It’s also being used in research into ionising particles; it’s even flying in the space station for research on space radiation. It’s very generic, but that means it’s highly transferable and has a wide variety of applications. We’re taking that well-known technology and improving it.
How does the polymer sense radiation?
The most simple way to explain it is that radiation damages the material in a specific manner, and then that damage can be analysed. That requires a chemical etch to enhance the damage, and then it can be seen down a microscope.
You mentioned that it’s a known technology. How does your product improve on the classic version?
The idea is to improve on the recipe to produce the next generation SSNTD, which has a pure surface without loss of sensitivity and with minimal polymer degradation over time. When you analyse the damage from radiation, you’re essentially counting dots – every bit of damage is a black dot on a screen, and the more dots you have the better the analysis you can do. Where the current SSNTDs may struggle in detecting particles that come in at a low angle or have surface impurities mimicking the radiation damage, that means the data you’re getting isn’t as reliable as it could be. We’re working on developing the “perfect surface” without losing the ability to pick up low angle particles.
We’re looking to make the highest quality material in the industry, focusing on the radiation detecting properties and that’s where all the chemistry comes in; it’s all in the details.
We custom manufacture, so clients will come with specific recipes or specific desired properties. Through focussing on SSNTDs, we’re a more specialised business and can produce a customisable, high-end product.
How did GM Scientific start? How did you move from particle physics to polymer chemistry?
When I finished my PhD I knew academia wasn’t for me, despite what I had thought, and I got a job with a small spin-off company from the physics department, who were manufacturing radiation-sensitive plastic. I had a whole variety of duties, which gave me a lot of experience of the components of running a business in this market. This company were manufacturing and supplying the plastics and also the analysis machines, so part of my job was putting those two things together and start a radon gas measurement service in-house. Once that was up and running I also started working on the analysis machines, building them, training customers and then I started travelling to do the sales and maintenance.
I came down to Unit DX, looking for somewhere to move the radon measurement service to as part of getting ISO accredited. As I had a look around, it got me thinking. I had never thought I would be able to set up alone, because I’d need to find space, set up a lab… The initial investment had always been prohibitively big, and this industry isn’t safe for lone-working. But at Unit DX I saw a way I could actually set up my own business.
When I was not able to secure my future in the way I had hoped in my job, I started the ball rolling, and started out with the money I needed to keep afloat for just a quarter of the first year. The early period wasn’t easy, but Unit DX has been extremely flexible, and has supported me massively – without that flexibility GM Scientific wouldn’t be here today. It’s been slow to build up, I think partly because some people in the industry see me as “the sales girl”, and they find it hard to believe I could do anything else, so I’ve really had to prove myself. But at the moment we’re working with a larger lab in the industry and we’re starting to see more interest in our product and services.
What are your future plans?
In time, we’d like the main strength of the business to be R&D of custom products. We can also see opportunities in upgrading and streamlining the industry’s analysis machines, applying modern image processing techniques. We are at the moment experimenting with using some of the techniques I used for data analysis during my PhD, and we’d like to go back and develop the software side with time.
Having worked in the industry I know what people want from their machines, and I know what they’re not getting. Right now we’re building up capital but in the long-term we’re looking at becoming a high-end and specialised manufacturer of the next generation of SSNTDs.
GM Scientific are current developing their website. In the meantime, Maria can be contacted by email.